Libertarians generally cringe at most of what comes out of Hollywood and for good reason. The consistent message from its movies and movie stars is that private property and free enterprise are the scourge of society, that profits are made by exploiting the poor and working classes, and that private industry is the enemy of nature that will eventually destroy the earth.
Given this consistent anti-freedom message, it would be hard to blame anyone for a reflexive roll of the eyes upon hearing that Kevin Costner has come forward regarding the BP oil spill. However, this real-life story has a surprising twist. Costner is not calling for some tax-funded government boondoggle. Nor is he taking the opportunity to lecture the masses about their responsibility to sacrifice their lives and property to save the earth or why they should feel guilty for polluting it merely by being alive. Instead, Costner has provided a solution, born out of his entrepreneurial interest in a new technology, that may be effective in cleaning up the oily gulf.
According to an article in the LA Times, Costner and a business partner acquired Ocean Therapy Industries after the Exxon Valdez oil spill and “has spent 15 years and $24 million of his own money on this technology.” The technology had little commercial potential until the Deepwater Horizons accident, which may also qualify Costner as – gasp – a speculator.
The article goes on to say that, “The machines essentially operate like big, floating vacuum cleaners, which suck up oily water and spin it around at high speed. On one side, it spits out pure oil, which can be recovered. The other side spits out 99% pure water.” Costner and his partner hope to sell the reclaimed oil and donate most of the profits to local parishes which have suffered because of the spill. Presumably, the revenues for selling the machines themselves will constitute a handsome return on investment for Costner and his partner.
Whatever Costner’s political views may be, his actions speak louder than words. He is demonstrating yet again that every innovation that has improved the quality of human life has been the result of entrepreneurs taking risks in the hope of profits. While President Obama is making speeches and looking for asses to kick, private enterprise has stepped forward with a solution that will benefit all parties involved. Like all exchanges in a free market, the customer benefits from a new product that it needs or wants, the entrepreneur is enriched for risking his own money and devoting his own labor and time, and all of humanity benefits from the existence of new technology. There are no “losers” in a voluntary exchange of property.
In all fairness, this technology was originally developed by the U.S. government. However, it took the vision, commitment, and risk tolerance of a private investor to transform the technology into something useful and make it available when the time was right. This is also not without precedent. In the 1980’s, entrepreneur’s saw opportunity in a little-known technology called ARPANET, the result of a partnership between MIT and the Department of Defense. They decided to risk their own money developing this technology into something that would actually be useful to everyday people. They created products and services that billions now benefit from and the entrepreneurs were enriched in the process. Today, we call that technology the Internet.
Hopefully, Costner’s fellow actors, producers, and directors will not vilify Costner for “making money on this environmental tragedy.” I recommend that they look at it that Costner is “making the big, bad oil company pay” for the damage it has done. However, no amount of spin can change the facts. This solution was provided by a private entrepreneur who took a risk in the hope of profits. As far as this crisis is concerned, the score is Market 1, Government 0.
Libertarians don’t get to say this very often, so let me be the first: Hooray for Hollywood! Oh, and Kevin, good luck with your venture. I hope you make a million bucks.
© Thomas Mullen 2010